MADELEINE BRAND, host:
President Bush is on the Texas/Mexico border today, reviewing border security. While there, he'll speak about immigration reform. More than 6,000 National Guard troops are now either on the U.S. border or training to go there.
Operation Jump Start is intended to help the border patrol until it can beef up its own numbers.
And to find out how it's working, NPR's Ted Robbins traveled to the border in Arizona.
TED ROBBINS reporting:
Members of the Virginia National Guard monitor border patrol, radio traffic, look through binoculars, shoulder their M-16's. They are deployed in groups of four, about a quarter mile apart, observation posts dotting the brush-covered bluffs under blue shade canopies.
Sergeant BRENNAN BOONE (National Guard): Very little camouflage, very little cover and concealment, because we want this to be high visibility area.
ROBBINS: Like other soldiers here, Sergeant Brennan Boone served in Iraq, where being out in the open is risky, to say the least. But this is the border between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales Sonora, and sergeant Boone says his orders are to be seen. The idea is simple. If people on the other side see soldiers, they won't cross the border illegally. Other soldiers are building roads along the border, fixing vehicles, and working in offices. That frees up border patrol agents to, well, patrol the border. Spokesman Sean King.
Mr. SEAN KING (Border Patrol): For instance, at the station here in Nogales, 40 agents have now been cleared up to go work on the border that weren't out on the border before.
ROBBINS: Border patrol figures show a 37 percent drop in arrests of illegal crossers for the month of July compared with July of last year. True, July is traditionally a slow time for crossing, but the number is significant because there was a drop in all border sectors, rather than a shift from one to another. Even the border patrol admits it's far too early to declare Operation Jump Start a success. But Sean King does credit the guard presence and the word about the guard presence in Mexico.
Mr. KING: If that's where they want to cross over there and say the armed military is on the border and that stops them from coming, then the job is done.
ROBBINS: In Arizona alone, Guard troops have come from ten states.
Specialist TRAVIS ARNOLD (National Guard): My name is specialist Travis Arnold, I'm from Grays Lake, Wisconsin.
ROBBINS: Temporary help from soldiers like Travis Arnold might produce side benefits for the border patrol. The agency has had trouble keeping up with the demand for more recruits.
Mr. ARNOLD: Ten sixty-five one one dash two four one.
ROBBINS: Arnold sits in front of a bank of video monitors at the Nogales station, each showing the signal from a camera overlooking the border. When he spots someone suspicious he calls agents to investigate. He says a job with the border patrol is a possibility. Arnold says if he were home he'd be going to school and working part time in an office supply store.
Mr. ARNOLD: It's going to definitely depend on how these two years go. But for the most part I've been enjoying my time down here and it's definitely an option.
Sergeant CLYDE HESTER (National Guard): Hello, I'm Sergeant Clyde Hester.
ROBBINS: For soldiers like Clyde Hester, who's out in an observation post, it's more than an option. It's looking better all the time. He's obviously finding out about the job first-hand, plus the starting pay is attractive to him. Thirty-six to forty thousand dollars a year, going up to fifty-two thousand after two years, plus overtime.
Mr. HESTER: I'm from Lee County, Virginia, back of the Appalachian Mountains, and there's just not a lot to do there. If you don't go in a hole in the ground to do coal mines or you don't go up in the mountains to do logging, there's not much to do there. So - and this is interesting, it really is.
ROBBINS: Other soldiers we spoke with, those who left jobs or family only for their annual three week training, said they had no interest in the border patrol. Some were interested but too old. The cutoff is 40. Sergeant Hester recently returned from Iraq, where he was machine gun operator. To him this is not just an opportunity, it's a relief.
Mr. HESTER: You know, you sit down and watch and go, okay, yeah, I'm not being shot at every minute of every day. So...
ROBBINS: Border patrol agents have to learn Spanish and many wash out during training. But these soldiers are at least providing a pool of potential recruits. If Operation Jump Start works, in a couple of years some of the same people may be here in a different uniform. Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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